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Greek holiday threat to turtles

- by Joe Mason

Few remaining habitats for the endangered turtle.

The hotspot Greek island holiday resort of Laganas on Zante (Zakynthos) attracts thousands of holidaymakers each year. The scores of happy hour cocktail bars, neon-lit nightclubs and cheap-as-chips burger joints are a big hit with youngsters and families alike, all looking for a bargain break of sea, sun, sand and booze.

But Greek island visitors on Zante holidays pose a major threat to endangered sea turtles that nest each year on the island beaches.

Since the 1980's the resort at Laganas has exploded into an ugly beachfront strip of music bars, nightclubs, restaurants and hotels where package-holiday tourists descend in droves.

The nightmare of neon on Laganas' main strip has been compared to a set from the sci-fi movie classic Bladerunner.

But the bright all-night lights do more than attract legions package holiday tourists out on bargain booze bar crawls. The flashing lights strung along more than a mile of sea front also prove a deadly attraction for a rare breed of hatchling loggerhead turtles.

Mesmerised by the garish night-time neon, the newly hatched baby turtles turn away from the winking stars that should guide them to the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean and head instead in the wrong direction – inland towards the disco clubbing youngsters and to almost certain death.

The long holiday beach of Laganas Zante is one of the few remaining habitats for the endangered loggerhead turtle Caretta Caretta. The turtles have been heading there for 10,000 years, to mate offshore and for the females to lay their eggs in the soft, flat sand.

Scientists say Laganas is one of the most important habitats in Europe, if not the world, for this endangered turtle species. Each summer up to 2,000 turtle crawl out of the sea the lay their eggs on the beach.

But the long, flat sands of Laganas are also a favourite playground for thousands of visiting Brits. And when it comes to a fight between sun beds and turtle nests guess where the betting money is placed. Efforts to protect the egg-laying turtles have been swamped in the stampede for profits.

A 1992 European Directive that Greece conserve the Laganas nesting grounds was totally ignored. Nesting sites were protected on paper only. Conservations had no management, no staff, no money, no laws and no boundary markets for protected areas. Worst of all there was no interest from the Greek authorities at any level.

It was only when the European Commission launched action against Greece at the European Court of Justice over the continued destruction of the Laganas Bay nesting area that the Greek government was forced to issue a presidential decree, creating a new maritime park.

But the effort still met with outright hostility from local beach-front business owners. The Prefect, the Mayor and 27 individuals when to court to try and get the decree revoked and ugly scenes erupted at public meetings when local landowners demanded cash compensation for 'lost' areas of beach.

In 2000 the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles dubbed the new marine park 'a total failure' as development restrictions were lifted and illegal buildings went up on protected sites. Conservation volunteers patrolling nest sites were attacked and three people had to be treated in hospital.

Laganas Bay became awash with motor boats, jet skis and paragliders and the beach buried under a forest of sun beds and parasols. Too busy filling their pockets from the free-spending holiday Brits, the locals had little time for conservationists and even less for nesting turtles.

Turtle nesting information signs were torn down and horse riders regularly galloped over three kilometres of beach. Horse jumping over turtle nest protective cages became a popular sport.

Bulldozers moved in and destroyed nesting sand dunes to make more way for beach furniture and for hundreds more sun beds. In 2003 there were report of indiscriminate building and bulldozing, beach car racing at night and of sewage effluent dumped in the bay.

The plight of the turtles has been made even more poignant by the traders who cash in on the resort's turtle nesting attractions. Visitors can buy turtle tee-shirts, turtle tea towels and turtle egg cups. Dozens of boat owners offer turtle viewing trips in glass bottom boats. Yet these same traders are the turtles' biggest enemy.

Despite this volunteers have continued to battle for the turtles, removing rubbish from nesting sites, handing out leaflets, asking club owners to dim lights and turn down music at night.

The ironic thing is that locals in Laganas boast of having the highest turtle population in the Mediterranean. Visitors to Laganas can buy turtle t-shirts, turtle tea towels, turtle egg cups and any number of trinkets lauding the resort's association with loggerhead turtle.

Yet these same people are the turtles' biggest enemy. Their greed and selfishness is doing more that anything to destroy the turtle population and the annual visitors unwittingly help them do it.

If people persist on taking a holiday in Laganas, if they pay for glass-bottom boat trips to pester these shy creatures, if they use sun beds placed on turtle nesting beaches or take jet skis through turtle waters then they, along with the self-serving beach-front sharks, will help to see the turtle population killed off completely.

If the Greeks won't consider their own endangered wildlife than perhaps we should do it for them and drop Laganas from our list of holiday resorts until it is made safe for both turtles and tourists.